Robert Fisk: Gun battles as Hizbollah claims Lebanon is at war

If you want to fight us, you'll have to fight us. This was Sayed Hassan Nasrallah's message to the Lebanese government yesterday and his words were followed within seconds by two massive gun battles in the streets of Beirut.

He had spoken in that careful, thought-through, distressing way in which he always threatens the Hizbollah's enemies. He even swapped the names of the Lebanese Prime Minister, Fouad Siniora, with that of the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt – calling Jumblatt the real prime minister and Siniora his deputy – and blamed both for trying to set up a CIA-Mossad base at Beirut airport. What other reason could there be, he asked, for the two men to demand the dismantlement of Hizbollah's communications system and the suspension of the head of airport security? This was "a Lebanese government declaration of war against the resistance". Well, maybe. But Nasrallah still wants the Hizbollah's enemies to be the Israelis – not his Lebanese opponents.

So what happened in the minutes after he spoke? At least one Shia Amal gunman started shooting at an office belonging to Sunni supporters of the government, some of whom may have been the youths apparently brought down from Tripoli for just such a battle. The Lebanese army was not fully engaged on the streets last night but its armoured vehicles were driving between the sectarian interfaces and apparently taking fire from both sides.

It was a dark and distressing speech by the secretary general of Hizbollah, which came less than 24 hours after the Grand Mufti, Mohammed Kabbani, furiously referred to the Hizbollah as "armed gangs of outlaws that have carried out the ugliest attacks against the citizens and their safety". Needless to say, neither Nasrallah nor Kabbani stated the obvious – that the first represents a large number of the Shia Muslim community and the second most of the Sunnis.

The sectarian background to this dangerous game is the point, of course. The street battles in Beirut are between Shia and Sunni, the first supporting the Iranian-armed Hizbollah, the second the Lebanese government, which now regularly carries the sobriquet "American-backed". In other words, the collapse of Beirut these past two days is part of the American-Iranian conflict – even though, be sure, the Americans will blame the Hizbollah for this and the Iranians will blame the Americans.

Yet still the language of Nasrallah – like that of Kabbani – was frightening, even though he had behind him the national flag of Lebanon with its green cedar tree as well as Hizbollah's own yellow banner. To call Jumblatt "a liar, a thief, a killer..." – though this view might be heartily reciprocated by Jumblatt himself – is language that puts Lebanese in danger of their lives.

Nasrallah's complaint that the suspension of Wafiq Chucair as head of airport security was part of an American-Israeli plot might sound a bit much, but his long and point-by-point insistence that Hizbollah should maintain its new communications links – including its cameras along the Beirut airport perimeter – was perhaps more reasoned, albeit that it helps allow his organisation to remain part of a state with the state. Wireless communications can easily be tapped, he said, and he added that new communications were the "most powerful tool" in Hizbollah's 2006 war against Israel.

Nasrallah intriguingly pointed out that Siniora's government had previously told the Hizbollah that it would allow the secure communications circuits to remain if the movement closed down its largely empty "tent city" in the centre of Beirut. Indeed, it has largely been in place for more than a year. Hizbollah had no argument with the Lebanese army – a view that might not be shared by General Michel Sulaiman, its commander, who stated yesterday that the situation is "threatening the army's impartiality".

All of which continues Lebanon's crisis. Beirut airport remained largely empty of aircraft yesterday – the Christian daily L'Orient Le Jour rightly suggested that it had been taken hostage by Hizbollah, who control all roads to the terminal – and there were brief gun battles between government and opposition supporters in the Bekaa Valley town of Saadnayel. Yet again, burning tyres were set up in areas demarcating Shia and Sunni districts, and the army closed the Corniche Mazraa highway, which divides west Beirut. By last night it was the scene of a gun battle. Kuwait urged its citizens to leave Lebanon – without being obliging enough to tell them exactly how to perform this task without an airport.